The Perils of Normalization

foreheadHow far would you be willing to go for a more attractive and socially pleasing look?  Would you choose to sacrifice part of your cognitive functioning, leaving your brain less able to process verbal and emotional input?  Not many people would intentionally go to such extremes.  But according to a research study on the effects of cosmetic Botox injections, a large number of people may have unwittingly done just that.
Botox works by paralyzing the muscles in the forehead that cause people to frown.  The research study found that by blocking the physical signals associated with anger and unhappiness, Botox impaired the ability to understand those emotions.  Subjects who were tested on their ability to comprehend sentences with emotional content took significantly longer after receiving Botox injections to read and understand sentences with infuriating or sad content, although their processing of other emotions was not affected.  This research, as the article explains, is part of the field of embodied cognition, which deals with how our thoughts and our body movements relate to each other.
Like the Botox patients, many autistic children placed in behavioral therapy programs have been prevented from engaging in physical movements that their brains associate with specific emotions.  Autistic individuals may, for example, rock back and forth when they are anxious or flap their hands when they are happy and excited.  Behavioral programs often focus on suppressing these autistic traits because they are socially stigmatized, without considering whether they serve any useful neurological functions such as processing the associated emotions and their expression in language.
Although the results of the Botox study do not conclusively establish that suppressing body movements associated with emotion can impair the cognitive functioning of autistic people, we should, at the very least, be aware of the potential risk.  Because many autistic mannerisms such as hand-flapping are completely harmless, they would be better dealt with by ending the stigma and improving society’s acceptance of neurological differences.  It makes no sense to put the mental and emotional health of our autistic children at risk just to teach conformity to narrow, prejudiced expectations.

on 03/1/10 in Autism, featured | No Comments | Read More

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